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While the country deals with the coronavirus, Idaho state legislators prioritize banning trans athletes

The bill would allow anyone to challenge a female athlete’s sex — and force her to prove it.

Redwood’s Gillian Wagner competes in the girls 1600 meter run at the North Coast Section Meet of Champions track and field meet held at Edwards Stadium in Berkeley, Calif., on Saturday, May 27, 2017. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group)
The girls’ 1600 meter run at the North Coast Section Meet of Champions track and field meet held at Edwards Stadium in Berkeley, California, on May 27, 2017.
Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group

As the country deals with the growing coronavirus pandemic, Republicans in the Idaho state legislature met on Monday to blaze forward with their anti-trans agenda. The state Senate passed a bill, 24-11, banning trans and intersex girls from competing as girls in school athletics, even though there are currently no trans athletes competing in the state.

The bill — which, if signed by Gov. Brad Little, would become the first state-level anti-trans bill passed so far this year — would require female athletes in high schools and colleges to undergo invasive sex testing to determine eligibility to compete in the girls’ division. The bill passed in the state House in late February, by a 24-11 vote.

According to the bill’s text, if a girl’s sex is challenged by an opposing coach, administrator, or parent, it can be proven by presenting “a signed physician’s statement that shall indicate the student’s sex based solely on: The student’s internal and external reproductive anatomy; the student’s normal endogenously produced levels of testosterone; an analysis of the student’s genetic makeup.”

That requirement places an undue burden on female athletes — making them go to the doctor for a genital exam or DNA test in an attempt to prove they meet the state’s standards for girlhood — that simply isn’t enforced upon their male counterparts. It also misunderstands trans kids, and the science behind trans athletes.

“This bill attempts to solve a problem that does not exist while slamming the door shut for transgender student athletes to fully participate in their school communities,” said Kathy Griesmyer, policy director with the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho, in a statement. “Idaho has not seen any issues with trans girls competing in the girls sports. This unconstitutional and mean-spirited bill prevents trans girls from finding community and self-esteem in sports and will certainly result in litigation to defend the civil rights of Idaho’s transgender community.”

While some schools in Idaho have chosen to close in an abundance of caution over coronavirus, Gov. Little declined over the weekend to issue an order to close schools statewide. It’s unclear if interscholastic athletic events are even happening in the state. Nonetheless, the legislature hasn’t let a global pandemic get in the way of pushing through legislation that will harm trans people.

Why trans athletes now?

Two of the most high-profile high school trans athletes in the past few years have been Andraya Yearwood and Terry Miller, two trans girls in Connecticut who won state track championships. That handful of wins — as well as a smattering of other trans women who have succeeded in lower-level championship events — has kicked off fears that trans women are “ending women’s sports” due to an alleged “inherent male advantage” in athletics, according to bill sponsors in Idaho, furthering the kind of anti-trans messaging on conservative sites like the Daily Caller and National Review.

Several students who competed against the Connecticut trans girls, and their parents, filed a federal lawsuit, with the help of the Alliance Defending Freedom, the one-stop legal shop for nearly every anti-trans lawsuit in the US, against the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference. The suit claims that it’s biologically impossible for the cisgender complainants to defeat their “biologically male” trans counterparts.

But a handful of wins by half a dozen athletes does not spell an end to women’s athletics. Those same Connecticut trans girls failed to place in the top five at the New England High School track championships in 2019, losing to faster cisgender competition. In fact, just days after filing their federal suit, one of the complainants beat both trans girls in a 50-meter indoor sprint event. The suit is awaiting a hearing.

The science of trans athletes is unsettled

Thus far, the science of trans athletes has been fairly muddled. The International Olympic Committee has allowed trans women to compete after undergoing bottom surgery since 2003, and in 2016 relaxed its requirements to allow trans women without surgery to compete as long as they’ve suppressed their testosterone levels for at least a year. The NCAA adopted the same standard. So far, no openly trans athletes have qualified for the Olympics since 2003.

Most people assume that because cisgender men are typically more athletic than cisgender women, trans women must also fit that bill. But hormones have a large effect on muscle development, with testosterone rebuilding muscle tissue more quickly than estrogen. That means a testosterone-dominant body can more quickly recover from workouts than its estrogenated counterpart, so it can work harder and more often. That results in more muscle growth, according to hormonal science.

Some anti-trans voices argue, however, that it’s male puberty that makes trans women stronger and faster, pointing to the fact that trans women, on average, have narrower hips and broader shoulders, as well as denser bones. But it’s difficult to measure how much those attributes influence athletic performance when muscles are obviously a key athletic factor.

Regardless, most high school athletes are still going through puberty, and many trans adolescents could be taking puberty blockers or cross-sex hormones — which Idaho is also trying to ban. Idaho Republicans’ interest in banning both trans athletes and their transitions, which often means stopping natal puberty, signals this is more about pushing an anti-trans agenda than it is about science.

In fact, next up on the Idaho Senate agenda: banning gender changes on trans people’s birth certificates.